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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

by Sherman Alexie
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What does the title The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven demonstrate?

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In his fiction, Sherman Alexie creates a different portrayal of American Indians from the one that has been presented to us in white American folklore and in the popular culture. Native Americans are often dispossessed, suffering from chronic problems that are the legacy of the centuries of mistreatment and,...

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In his fiction, Sherman Alexie creates a different portrayal of American Indians from the one that has been presented to us in white American folklore and in the popular culture. Native Americans are often dispossessed, suffering from chronic problems that are the legacy of the centuries of mistreatment and, in fact, genocide inflicted upon them. The title of Alexie's collection of stories relates to this disconnect between reality and the traditional portrayal of the American Indian by the white establishment.

In The Lone Ranger radio and television series of the period from about 1940 to 1960 (the reruns were shown for years afterward), the title character is a masked white man who carries out an independent form of righteous justice against lawbreakers in the old American West. He is accompanied by a Native American man named Tonto, who is his companion and partner in crimefighting. It is a sort of Batman and Robin team, but one in which the Robin figure, Tonto, is a member of the race that has been decimated by the whites (of which the Lone Ranger is a part). Though the Lone Ranger never mistreats Tonto, the fact of Tonto's obvious subservience to him is, or can be, offensive to Indigenous Americans and presumably to anyone today with enlightened sensibilities. Alexie's fiction is a corrective to this rather demeaning portrayal. In a more realistic world, his title suggests, the Ranger and Tonto would be fighting with each other, rather than cooperating, especially cooperating in a manner where the man who has or should have the grievance is subordinate to the other man. A reversal of the dynamic between them might make more sense, Alexie seems to suggest.

In the story "Distances," Alexie does present such a reversal, in a futuristic setting where the whites have been marginalized and exiled and the American Indians are the victors. Far from presenting this as an ideal, however, Alexie depicts it as a dystopia in which the Native Americans themselves discriminate against each other. The message coming across is that any form of oppression and massacre leads to more of the same, in an endless cycle of violence.

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The themes of the stories in Sherman Alexie's collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are encapsulated in the title, which Alexie said came to him in a dream. Alexie writes principally about Native American people in difficult, often violent interaction with white America.

The Lone Ranger, a former Texas lawman turned masked vigilante, was the star of a radio show (which began in 1933) and many subsequent films, television shows, comic books, and novels. Although he was no longer an official representative of the law, the Lone Ranger maintained a rigid code of ethics and had high standards in many other areas, including his grammar and diction. He was intended to be a representative of decent, law-abiding America.

Tonto, who first appeared in the eleventh episode of the radio show, is the Lone Ranger's Native American sidekick. His name means "fool" or "moron" in Spanish, and he speaks in a pidgin English dialect (e.g., "Him say man ride over ridge") that Alexie regards as demeaning. The simple point Alexie makes is that in real life, or even in a Heaven free from constraints, Tonto would be the Lone Ranger's enemy, not his sidekick, and would finally be able to punch him in the face. But even under such circumstances, the title suggests, the Lone Ranger would get top billing.

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto were fictional radio and television characters who fought crime in the West and who were part of popular culture. They were a rare example that represented an amicable relationship between whites and Native Americans. The Lone Ranger represents whites, while Tonto represents a Native American figure who fights alongside whites.

In this story, the title refers to Victor's relationship with his white girlfriend in Seattle. They often fight, and, in the end, Victor returns to the reservation. The title implies that whites and Native Americans are not compatible, as they are depicted in the Lone Ranger and Tonto stories. Instead, they fight, even in heaven. The other stories in this collection also involve conflict between Native Americans and the white world. For example, in "The Trial of Thomas-Builds-the-Fire," the main character discusses the way Native Americans have been mistreated by whites.

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On the surface, the title The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven may refer to the conflict and fights between Victor Joseph and his white girlfriend. Victor Joseph and his girlfriend leave the reservation for Seattle. Victor finds work, but he drinks too much. The girlfriend confronts Victor, making the situation worse. The situation brings conflict to their relationship, and Victor decides to go back to the reservation.

Although the title may simply describe the conflict between Victor and his girlfriend, on a deeper level, the title may also describe the racial conflict that the narrator is exposed to in Seattle. He profiles customers at his workplace in order to preempt any potential theft at the store. The same is done to him when he drives through a middle-class neighborhood at night. He is pulled over and questioned. The heightened racial awareness gives him nightmares about being punished for having relations with a white woman. The fear forces him to leave Seattle.

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The title The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven demonstrates that, despite the amicable depiction of the famous white lawman and his Indian sidekick, relationships between the two races are not that way in real life at all.  Enotes explains,

"The Lone Ranger and Tonto are symbols for white and native-American identity, respectively.  Their names are taken from a popular radio and television show of the 1950s in which a white man, the Lone Ranger, teams up with an Indian, Tonto, to battle evil in the old West".

In this and many images from popular culture, the white man and the Indian are represented as living and working side by side in harmony, with the white man the leader and more individually capable of the two, the Indian his inferior.  In reality, the white man came to America as an imperialistic conqueror, taking over land the Indians had occupied first, and leaving them disenfranchised and oppressed.  The stories in the book focus on a group of varied native-American characters who, with a sense of steadfast endurance and ironic humor, show what it is like to live, mired in poverty and alcoholism, stripped of their identity and "larger social purpose", yet unable and unwilling to adopt the culture of the imperialistic majority.

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